The doctor said Dad only has a few days left in this life. With an island full of cousins, and grandkids and great-grandkids, and fishermen, millworkers, loggers, and fellow retired Forest Service trail crew, his room has been a flurry of I love yous and remember whens. And of course, tears. Family and friends have been calling, video chatting, and waving from the window outside.
As Dad lies in bed sleeping, I watch his chest rise and fall. I don’t see a dying man, but a man in a river hanging onto a moose’s neck to keep it from floating away after he’d shot it. I see Dad hauling a big halibut over the side of our boat, and the dad who always has binoculars pressed to his face.
But here’s the good news: Dad did not die. He got better once all the family arrived from Florida, Seattle and Hawaii. As soon as we gathered in the hospital, stories like medicine, dosed the room. We laughed at old stories and learned new ones. In between our laughter and Dad’s nap he woke up and said, “You’re all going to miss me.”
After a couple weeks, delaying impending death, Dad was sent home to hospice, meaning, his recliner, his own bed, the dogs, my clam chowder and halibut pizza, and a view of the sea. His fast-growing rare cancerous tumor is back, and he doesn’t want to endure any more chemo or radiation or surgery. The doctor said it could be a couple months or a year, that they just don’t know.
Lately, it feels like I’m floating with a life jacket on and a pair of binoculars. I can see things more clearly with my binoculars, yet there’s a sensation of floating, waiting, drifting. Sometimes words don’t come out right on the page. I want to watch whales with my dad one more time. I want to pick spruce tips with him and go jigging for halibut one more time.
Now, with binoculars in hand, Dad sits in his recliner looking through the glass sliding door out to Etolin Island across Zimovia Straits. “There’s been a whale out there for a while.”
Lately, we talk about death as if it’s out front trolling in an open skiff, and not hidden in the stump of a tree. I ask him to record a story for everyone about the times he “almost bit it.”:
It was a nice spring day and flat calm. We had a Gillcraft, an 18-foot boat with a small cabin on it. I was married, maybe in my early 20s, in the1960s. Me and my friend Lance Ingle headed to Salmon Bay on the north end of Prince of Wales Island. We always got steelhead there. The wind came up. We were fishing in a stream and the trees were blowing over around us. We looked out of the lagoon and huge waves were hitting the island out front.
We couldn’t go home, and we couldn’t camp on the beach because trees were blowing down. We had to anchor out. We only had a camp stove, one sleeping bag and no food because we thought were only going to be gone for the day. Lance’s dad knew where we were but no one else did.
The next day it looked calmer, but we couldn’t go north so we tried to go through Ossipee Channel between Shrubby and Bushy Island. The tide was ripping through there with 8-foot waves.
I asked Lance if he thought we should put life jackets on, and Lance said what for? I told him, well, they’d be able to find our bodies then.
The boat was icing up from the waves and it started to list. We had to chip the ice off our boat before we headed for Nesbit Reef. It was white caps all the way across. Then the tide switched, and we headed to Round Point when a wave took out the boat’s windows. I had to hold a rain jacket up against the window. We pulled into a nook and laid up for hours.
The next day it was calmer, so we ran across Chichagof. It was rough but doable. It took us eleven hours to get back. Normally, a ride would’ve taken an hour or so. We didn’t find out until later that Lance’s dad, Sharky, had called the Coast Guard but it was too bad to fly. The wind was clocked at 110 miles per hour. And the warm spring weather had dropped 20 degrees that day. I don’t think we ever put on our life jackets.
I’ve heard most of Dad’s stories, but some are not familiar. Either way, storytelling must be good for the body and spirit because Dad says he doesn’t know why he’s still here. “It must be because I have more fishing to do.” It seemed his blood pressure and kidney, heart, lung, blood sugar all improved when we suggested that we were going to put the boat in the water soon, because it’s almost spring.
Together, my brother and I don’t look like a meeting of mourners. My brother, who’s visiting from Florida, is helping to care for our dad at our fishcamp. It’s morning and we have bed hair and we’re in Dad’s cabin sitting in lawn chairs, dipping Dad’s favorite burned cookies (that my brother burned especially for him) into our coffee. Our dad is sitting in his recliner with Kéet and Oscar curled nearby telling us another story about how he almost died:
I was trolling on the Irish, from Found Island to Deer Island on the big tides, when I got all four poles tangled. I had to slow down and stop and pull the gear up. I was pulling up the bow poles that have 40-pound cannon balls on them. I pulled one line up on the port side and I thought I’ll undo the plug wrapped around the line, but the line was from the other side. As soon as I undid one of the double hooks, the other hook jammed into my left-hand thumb. It hit my knuckle and yanked me out over the edge of the cockpit. I was held in only by my knees under the edge of the cockpit. I almost went overboard, and I thought it was going to split my finger open and take my finger off.
I couldn’t reach the gurdy to kick it in and take the weight off. So, I’m hanging out over the cockpit with the plug and the hook in my thumb. So, I had to pull the injured thumb over toward me with the weight of the cannonball, to reach around with my other hand and grab the plug stuck in my thumb. The tears from pain were pouring down my face. I got it far enough back to grab the plug with my other hand, and with my elbow, I hit the gurdy from the right bow pole to pull it up. It took the tension off so I could get the hook out of my thumb.
My adrenaline was rushing, and tears were pouring down my face from being almost pulled overboard. I got my senses together. There was no one for fifty miles. I got all my gear up and went into the anchorage and anchored up and slept for 12 hours straight and doctored my thumb up and went back to fishing.
We listen to stories all morning. Another story, about the time when he was a young man working in the lumber mill and he got hit in the head with piece of lumber and almost died. This one has us cringing as he described the injury and blood:
One of the carrier blocks used for stacking lumber was sticking out and the wheel of the lumber carrier caught it and flipped the block of wood like a tiddlywink. The big piece of lumber came up and hit me in the left eye on the eyebrow and immediately busted my head right open. I was bleeding everywhere.
My friend took me to Dr. Clark’s clinic to get stitched up. I had a big bandage around my head and only one eye sticking out. Instead of going straight home, which was up two hills above town, I walked downtown. I don’t know why, but probably because I was rumdum with a concussion and medicine. I walked down the Post Office hill to the Stikine Bar where a couple of family friends, Bob Urata Sr. and Duke Chase, were sitting at the bar looking out the windows. Duke ran out and pulled me inside saying, “Come on in Mick, we heard you got hurt at the mill. Come in and have a drink.” I didn’t know any better.
Afterward, Dad walked up to his house. He doesn’t remember what his young wife or young kids said. He was supposed to take a month off but recalls going back to work at the mill because he had mouths to feed.
This is one of the close-call stories we like to hear because it reminds us we could’ve lost him when we were young. Dad will be 83 years old in a couple months. So now, we sit with our life jackets on listening and enjoying every moment and every story.
So, Dear Readers, we’re scaling back our twice-monthly Planet Alaska column, for now, to write once-a-month because we’ll be busy taking Dad fishing as soon as the weather warms up. Nowadays we’re busy making cedar pegs and fashioning hooks for cohos, making Dad’s favorite blueberry pancakes, and his favorite shepherd’s pie, and talking story about the time, when Dad was young, a bald eagle flew down and grabbed onto his arm. Someday, Dad says he’ll tell us why he has shrapnel in his leg and how, as a kid, he slept with a knife to kill bears in his sleep.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.